Me and Anne Shirley teaching: Animations with Kids

I just finished re-reading Anne of Avonlea (the sequel to Anne of Green Gables.) In that book, Anne is sixteen-and-a-half years old and starts teaching, and of course, she becomes the best teacher the kids ever had.

I always liked reading this book. I loved reading about Anne as a teacher. Except this time when I read it, I realized how little it actually focuses on the teaching itself. Most of it is about everything else going on in Anne’s life.

But as far as the teaching parts go – it was good for me to re-read about that, because it is imbued with Anne’s philosophies as far as teaching go. And her philosophy is to be very kind and inspiring.

If you’ve been reading about my challenges as I run my “Science Animations with Kids” program, then you will know that no matter how inspiring I try to be, I still don’t always reach the kids. My foundational philosophy with this program is that all kids love to be creative; and all kids especially love Disney films and animated films. And if they are given a chance to make a computer animated film about science, then they will learn the value of teamwork, computers, taking care of the earth, reading, creativity, and science careers all at once. I mean, how can you get more inspirational than that?!

And yet, I had second-graders laughing at the work other second-graders did; and I had the girl Anna who I snapped at when she leaned back; and I had the other girl, Leah, who just up and turned her back and nearly started to cry when it was her turn. Those have been some rough moments.

Reading about Anne’s philosophy of kindness, I realized that I just not the kind of person who can live up to that. I am not patient enough, I’m not tactful enough, not soothing enough. When I get the attitudes of different kids flung in my face, my instinct is not always to try to “understand” and be gentle and mothering; rather, I want to fling their attitude back in their face.

I had a pretty bad day with the fifth-graders at Wolf Meadow two weeks ago. When I walked into the class, Anna – who I sadly correctly predicted I had lost the trust and respect of – gave one glance my way and immediately ripped out a groan: oh, she’s here again?

That’s a nice entrance to have when you’re volunteering, of course. The teacher told her right away: Anna! That was very rude. Apologize!

I honestly don’t know whether Anna apologized or not. I am sometimes slow to take in what is happening. I might not even have noticed what Anna said had not the teacher commented on it, or realized that Anna’s outburst was directed towards me. But as soon as my brain caught up, I simply decided I didn’t want Anna’s apology; I just didn’t want to work with Anna at all.

During that same class period, I managed to work with 3 kids in total; that’s pretty slow progress. It wasn’t because the kids were being slow, they were just being careful. But the slow progress was starting to frustrate me nevertheless, plus at this school I don’t have the luxury of having hours of time allotted when I can pull kids to animate with; all the time is kind of on a strict diet, if you will. The last kid I worked with that day, “Evan”, ended by making me really mad. After he was done animating, he told me: because I animated with you, now I won’t have time to build me connect-a-Lego! (some sort of construction building-block game.) I thought to myself: hello! This might be the only time in your life that you get to make a computer animation, and you’re complaining that you didn’t get to build your connect-a-Lego that you can access in class any old day? That’s gratitude for you! Out-loud I just told him curtly: then you should have told me from the start you didn’t want to do this, and I could have gotten another kid to animate your page.

Evan stayed still for a while as he wrapped his brain around this thought; and I did feel a little bit bad! I remember being his age, and feeling like when a grown-up told you to do something, not realizing that you have an option to say ‘no’; because so often you actually don’t have an option to refuse. How was Evan to know that he could have refused me?

He then bounded off to play with connect-a-Lego; but class ended shortly thereafter. As the kids filed out for lunch, someone called out, Evan’s crying. And indeed he was; he was squatting on the floor, over his beloved Connect-a-Lego, crying his heart out because class was over and he had to put everything away. “But I was almost done!” he wailed. His teacher, who has a heart of gold, tried to sooth him. But I did not! I did not feel bad or sorry for him; I felt mad. Like what am I doing with this project if Evan’s going to cry about it, and Anna’s going to groan?

I went home that day to an email inbox full of job rejections; oh, I was in a state, let me tell you!

The next day, I yelled at some people and felt better. I went back to Wolf Meadow, and luckily, no kid started crying when they had to animate with me.

The next week, when I was back at Wolf Meadow again, Evan came up to talk to me, all normal. I guess he has forgiven me for stealing his connect-a-Lego time. And I hope he will enjoy watching his part of the animated film when it’s all over. Anna is apparently a lost cause for me. But something surprising happened with the other girl with whom I’d had a hard time, Leah.

Ever since she’d gotten into a huff with me, she’s been hanging around when I animate with other kids. She’ll throw glances my way. Last Friday, a girl called “Miya” – who maybe is friends with Leah – did a very cool thing. She got the scientist in the program to walk across the screen. Miya did a great job, so I was squealing in praise of her. Leah showed up next to us! “Is that fun?” she asked in a very kind and very humble way to Miya. I pretended not to notice. Miya kept on making the scientist walk, and by the time she was done, we had a little audience behind us. Everyone was clapping Miya on. This is, by the way, one of the moments that does make me feel good about this program; because I don’t think Miya is someone who gets a lot of praise for accomplishments on the regular. But now she was having this special moment.

Suddenly, who should sidle up next to me but Leah? She dropped onto her knees so her head was level with mine (I was seated) and she said: Dr. Mejs, I’m sorry I was rude the other day.

And just like that, we made up. We talked a bit, and shook hands, and I can’t wait to animate with her now!

The teacher saw our interaction, and after the class had left for lunch, she asked: “so you’re good now with Leah?”

“Yep!” I answered. “She apologized.”

“What?!” The teacher was very surprised, which in turn made me surprised.

“I thought you’d told her to apologize,” I said.

“Not me! When she walked into class today, Leah told me, ‘I still haven’t animated my page. And I don’t want to, either!'”

You’ve got to love the defiance! I’m glad she changed her mind, and I think it speaks volumes that she apologized off her own bat, without any prompting. It was a good ending to this particular episode. So I’m not at Anne Shirley-levels of greatness in teaching; but I hope that I am doing more good than harm.

Quiet pause in the class

After some rough days, just had one of the best lessons I conducted today at Wolf Meadow. This was with a group of kids whose lesson last week was a complete wash, mostly due to some miscalculations on my and my partner teacher’s part. Well, we tried again this week, and it went so well.

When I do these lessons, I get so nervous about keeping a flow going; or I get nervous that if I don’t keep the pace relentless, I’ll lose the kids — they’ll start daydreaming or get distracted. Or if I don’t keep talking, then it will seem like I don’t have things straight in my mind, and the kids will start smirking.

That gets tricky when you get to a part of the lesson where you’ve been demonstrating and showing the kids things for a while, and you’ve piled on tools and tricks and tips, and now you have a new twist to show them, and — and — you’re out of breath yourself, but still feel like you need to plow right along.

Well, today, when I got to such a point, I took a breath instead! I took a pause. And the kids didn’t explode into chatter. I asked them instead: what do you think about this?

Positive claps all around.

Anything that’s really sticking out for your?

Ah, one kid said something, I just don’t remember what!

Then I told them: okay, there’s a bit more teaching to do before I let you all come up and practice yourselves, so let’s all take a deep breath. And we did quietly take a breath.

Way back when I was an actual teacher, I remember some of the “veteran” teachers would say things like: you can use silence so effectively in the classroom. Pauses and check-ins can be very helpful. Well, it’s a very nice tip, but I never made it to the stage where I was actually an effective enough teacher to be able to employ such nifty techniques. But here I am!

What the kids call me

I used to always just have all the kids call me ‘Mejs’, when I visit schools for ‘Animations with Kids’.

But then, the teacher I first worked with in the fall insisted on the kids calling me ‘Dr. Hasan’, plus she would always introduce me to the kids, or refer to me, as “my doctor friend.” I think she did that as an aspirational thing for the kids – look at this person who is a science doctor, you can be that, too. Mrs. Bravo-Boyd herself is of immigrant parents, and she really liked that I was, too.

Is Mary Poppins anti-science?

I guess a lady who floats down from the sky on an umbrella would, on first glance and by a lazy observer, have to be classified as anti-science. I guess?!

I saw the movie this weekend, and I loved it. But some comments made me pause, just for a bit. There was a repetition by many characters that “logic” and “practicality” and “sensibility” are boring and rather than being the foundations by which we live organized lives, they are impediments to achieving our dreams; barriers to saving ourselves and our families.

It was exactly those kinds of movies, and those kinds of books, that spoke to me when I was little. I didn’t want to be bogged down by boring, flat, and colorless logic (i.e. science). Of course, I would rather have an imagination and lead a life rich with fancy and humor and glimmers of magic.

But now that I have a Ph.D. in science, I sense there’s something lazy and wrong about these depictions. Yes, science is logical, but goodness, for something that’s so logical, there’s still an awful lot of creativity and imagination in it. Magic, too. Coding, for just one example, is pretty magical.

We need to find a way to teach science to kids so it’s as exciting as Mary Poppins’ huge dreams and schemes and talking cane. All those kids who think they are artistic and creative and want to dream and write and imagine need to understand that there’s room for all that in science, too.

And we need those kids in science, for our own sake, as much as we need the kids who love calculations and rules and gadgets and wear NASA shirts!

I learned something new about writing grants

First, the “something old”: what did I already know about writing grants? It’s miserable and soul-sucking and the work of the devil.

And the “something new”? I learned that you should make yourself the ‘Founder and Executive Director’ of something, it doesn’t matter what, in fact, it can be something stupid and just hot air, just as long as you style yourself in that way.

Then make sure you talk about how your mission is to “understand, heal, and grow.”

And that you want to “connect allies.”

Also, wiggle your eyebrows around and look sad and innocent and appealing and angelic.

I mean, I get that these are all well-meaning people, but I’ve always been suspicious when people start spouting off the latest craze-words. Why don’t they notice how unoriginal they are coming across? But they get all the grants, so I guess no one seems to notice. It’s just me that’s annoyed about it.

First viewing party – Butterfly story

It was really nice!

IMG_20181217_134829

The kids in the two classrooms said their movie was ‘amazing’, ‘awesome’, ‘terrific’, etc, etc. This was all in front of their parents.

I was really happy with the number of parents who showed. In one of the classrooms, there were like 10! I got surveys from each and every one. What I forgot to do was to ask for their email addresses, so I can keep sending them future videos. But that time will come. I’ll remember next time.

My first partner teacher was so amazing. She was the one who’d written a note to the parents and gotten so many of them to come. Then she gave me a little present at the end 🙂

And I had presents, too, for the kids. The Walt Disney Family Museum had sent them little souvenirs – bookmarks, pencils, postcards. It was great. The only thing with the postcards is all the characters on them are exclusively white. So I am going to use the more landscape-y scenes and figure out what to do with the character postcards.

post cards from the Walt Disney Family Museum
Post cards from the Walt Disney Family Museum

I also made certificates for the kids:

Animation certificates

Do they look bad? The blue/yellow/pink/green shapes that were glued on – I’ve been lugging those around for about 5 or 6 years. They were from some event in the Chesapeake Bay, when I used to work there. I don’t even remember what the event was, but they had cut out all those designs so nicely, and I felt so bad about seeing a whole lot of left-overs all tossed in the trash. So I grabbed them and have finally found a good use for them.

The ‘great job’ stickers I got from Staples. They were in the clearance bins for 75 cents or something, and there were like 72 stickers in each packets. And this is the Staples attached to the mall to which I can take the bus or walk, so I felt really good and resourceful.

And I felt wonderful after the viewings – like we really had done something good and meaningful. I kind of flew into this whole project more on gut instinct, rather than as part of a carefully considered career pathway. But it’s been pretty cool. I feel really entrepreneurial. It’s a nice feeling. I feel like we’re doing something fresh and nice.

The film itself – well, I think next time I’m going to have to do something with the flipping pages. It makes me dizzy to have them fly past all the time. But other than that, I thought the caterpillar scrunching itself along was super cute. And the drawings and everything looked so good. And the kids’ animations are just lovely! And so are their voices.

Here it is: “All About Butterflies!”

So that’s one film down, 5 more to go!

How to gently give kids feedback

Over at McAllister, we have already made the drawings for their animation project. That means we have about 45 illustrations floating around, from 3 second grade classes.

We’re doing the preliminaries before winter break, and then we’ll do the animating afterwards.They’re going to make two different stories in between them.

On the first day of illustrating, looking over the kids’ shoulders, one drawing in particular was sloppy. She was supposed to be drawing a messy garage, so I guess the sloppiness was in the spirit of the ‘messy garage’, except you couldn’t even really tell that’s what it was. I wasn’t sure if that was the best she could do, or if she had just splattered down colors haphazard out of carelessness.

So when she told me, “I’m done,” I suggested back, “well, why don’t you also draw a car for the garage?”

That’s when she pointed confidently at a blob, and said, “that’s the car right there.”

I was a little afraid if I kept pushing, she might start crying … like, “what do you mean you can’t tell what I drew?” Or maybe she would throw up her hands and say, “I don’t care! I don’t want to do this anymore!” I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say in the gentlest way possible, either, but I sat down beside her and made an outline of a garage and a car on another sheet of paper. Then I added some boxes in the corner of the garage, and we agreed we should add some tools. Eventually, she said: “I like that, can I use yours?”

So she was really welcoming of the help, after all. She added a fence, and then I sketched in paint cans. And then the kid beside us, who was also really sweet, helped her to spell “paint” on the paint cans. Then I said, “what else does the picture need?” hoping the girl would say, “color.” But they thought I was still talking about the paint cans, so the boy said, “they need handles.” They were going for all the details! So we added handles on the paint cans, and then the boy leaned over and add smears of paint along the top of the cans! They were both really cute helping each other.

I guess it was a bit of an iffy situation; maybe the girl’s reaction could have been very different. But in this case, I think she really appreciated the extra help. And although I like to say that the kids do all the work on these projects – this is the first time I remember helping with a drawing – I think this was okay to just provide a boost up.

Animations with kids – pond algae

Animations with kids is going really well! The “Butterfly Story” is on hold for the moment, because due to scheduling, I’ve over at McAllister Elementary for the time being.

But the last time I was with the butterfly kids, in a new classroom, we at least came up with the title for that story. It’s to be dubbed, “All about butterflies.”

The kids at McAllister have come up with a title for their pond algae story, too, a rather inventive one. “Mr. Glump at the Poisonous Pond.” There is a Mr. Glump in their story, and he is quite an unsavory character. But one kid exclaimed: no, no! Can’t we make the title sound happy?

But the story itself is not really that happy. The same kid asked why there wasn’t a happy ending. I showed them pictures of the big red tide that swept Florida earlier this year. “Ewwwww!” said all the kids. I asked, when do you all think this algal bloom happened?

“100 summers ago? 10,000 years ago? 30 years ago? 100 years ago!”

So I had to tell them that it had happened THIS year, and that algae is a problem today. I was trying to explain why there’s not much of a happy ending.

I had the kids staring wide-eyed, open-mouthed at me. It was the same in both McAllister classes who are doing this story. I remember being their age, when you still think that responsible adults run the world, and that these responsible adults don’t let bad things happen. On the one hand, I feel a little guilty to be wrecking their innocence; but on the other hand, there’s still a lot of action and civic engagement in our stories, so I hope this learning process is a healthy and constructive one.

We had a lot of other title suggestions shouted out: “Call it Mr. Meanie-Mouth,” one kid suggested, referring to Mr. Glump. Another: it should be called “Mr. Glump doesn’t know how to listen to people.”

What’s really cool about this story it allowed me to I teach them about the Periodic Table of Elements, Nitrogen and Phosphorus, phytoplankton, the ocean food chain, and the role that rain plays in washing pollution on land into the water, within 50 minutes. All while also reading the “Mr. Glump” story and watching “Mr. Turtle Gets Sick“, so that they can familiarize themselves with the project. And we looked at a map of the US/Canada/Mexico, and found North Carolina, Florida, and the Chesapeake Bay (usually, the kids don’t even know where our home state is.)

And I even explained how once an algal bloom dies, it sucks oxygen out of the water as it decays. And that’s why fish die. They were very sad about this picture of fish dying. Again, there was that innocence: responsible adults are actually allowing there to be so much pollution that fish die from it? What?

And I told them how scientists can go out and scoop up water samples, and then measure the pollutants in the water in their laboratories, and that every single one of them can have that job when they grow up. I showed them a female scientist in action by a river.

The question with lots of enthusiastic response was: so if scientists scoop up water and measure the pollution, but algal blooms like the ones in Florida still happen, does it seem like anyone is listening to scientists?

Noooo!!!! came the chorus. Kids are so cute.

But ultimately — though of course I don’t know how long the feeling will last — I have now 30 second-graders at this school thinking that science is great, if their response is a way to gauge, and that scientists should be listened to. It’s not actually super-hard if you present science in a human, emotional way, rather than a rigid, competitive, ugly way.

Well, maybe I should hold that thought. Who knows what these kids will think in the future.

Oh, one more awesome thing that came up with one of the classes. The kids noticed that phosphorus is represented by a ‘P’ in the Periodic Table, but its first sound is ‘ffff’. So we even got to talk about phonetic sounds.

Same thing when we got to “phytoplankton”: why’s it start with a ‘p’? they ask.

I remembered at that moment that ‘phyto’ is a prefix; so I told them some of these words came from the Ancient Greek (is that right? or do I have the wrong ancient language?) and that’s why they’re spelled ‘ph’. They looked at me a little skeptical, like, what is Greek? Well, we didn’t have time to go into it.

And then I thought I’d sound really smart and tell them that ‘phyto’ means ‘light’ in ancient Greek. But I just looked it up and apparently it means ‘plant’. Shucks.

Student evaluations

Someone told me that I should do evaluations of these projects, to gauge the effect of the kids’ attitudes on science and computers. So this is what I came up with:

scicomm student evaluations

Nice and straight-forward for my itty-bitty second-graders.

I actually forgot to do this with my first class at Irvin Elementary. But then, after we did a really great lesson on animation, I asked them, “so what do you all think about computers? What do you all think about science?”

I got huge smiles and huge shouts of “fun” back. So too bad I didn’t do a pre-evaluation of their thoughts! But I will at least do a post-evaluation, and I remembered to do the pre-evaluation with the second Irvin class. I told them, you can be honest, you won’t hurt my feelings at all. I got responses all over the place. It will be cool to compare to the post-evaluation.

Animations with kids

Yesterday and today, I visited a classroom at a local school. It was really great. We haven’t started animating yet or anything, or even illustrating.

But we read our story (about butterflies) and talked about life cycles. One kid got carried away and after we talked about caterpillars morphing into butterflies, said something like, “and butterflies change back to caterpillars.” But then a little girl said “nooooooo!” and we got it all cleared up.

They know all the words they need to know: chrysalis, life cycle, etc, etc. They are really good readers, and I had them compare a butterfly and caterpillar, and one kid said, well, they don’t look at all the same, and another kid said, well, the middle part of the butterfly where the wings attach are kind of like the caterpillar. They compare, contrast, they do cause-and-effect. I think they’re great!

And we watched Mr. Turtle, twice, so the kids would know what kind of movie we want to make. They really loved it, so my heart goes out to those second-graders four years ago at Northside Elementary who made it. Wow, they are now in sixth grade!

I told my new second-graders: guess what! There’s actually an American state that has banned plastic bags (I only knew this because of where I spent the summer), and it’s the state with the most number of people, all the way out on the west coast. Any guesses which one? They guessed the United States, Mexico, Florida, New Jersey, Washington D.C., Alaska, Hawaii, and New York, and Texas, and finally we told them it was California. We pulled out a map and did a little geography lesson and showed them all the states they’d mentioned, and then they started saying: we should ban plastic bags in North Carolina, too!

Utter darlings!!

Then, I was explaining how the butterflies fly south in the winter to Mexico, and I don’t know why, but quite a few of the kids had the idea that it’s colder in Mexico than in the US. There was a big globe handy, and I told them about the equator and how the closer you are to the equator, the hotter it is. “So is there really a line around the middle of the earth?” No, there’s no real line, and no words floating around saying “equator”, either.

For some reason, we got on the subject of lava and how underwater volcanoes and ocean islands form. They were really interested in that, so I will keep it in mind for future book ideas.

I told them all to close their eyes as I read them the butterfly story, so that they could imagine what kinds of pictures to draw along with it. One kid spent the whole time telling another kid: you’re not closing your eyes! Close your eyes! You haven’t closed them!

Last but not least, I felt like I should step up to the plate, since my PhD was in satellite images, and show them images of our town of Concord back in 1985 and then in 2011. I got the images all from the huge repository hosted by Google Earth Engine and used the satellite called Landsat 5, which was launched way back in the 1980s! I think it was 1984. And it kept going until 2012. It captured almost three decades of images from all over the world. When you process satellite images, you have to pick out three “colors of light” to use, so I used #1, shortwave infrared, #2, near infrared, #3, blue. Using these three colors together is not 100% accurate as to how the earth looks, but it makes the green of the forests and the blue of the lakes pop.

As soon as I showed them the 2011 image, a kid said: I was born then!

(Gone are the days when I was startled that a kid born in 1999 is older than infancy).

Well, it was great luck that I’d chosen the year of their birth, it was totally by accident. Hearing the glad news, I said: Great! Now you can see what Concord looked like the year you were born! Immediately, a couple of kids started whispering insistently, no, no, I was born in 2010.

I told them: when I went to college, I spent the whole time studying satellite images. Suppose a desert is getting bigger year after year. With the satellite, you can watch that pattern and measure it. It’s really important to know what deserts and rivers are doing. One kid said: it would be very bad if a desert was getting bigger. I took advantage of the moment and told him: that does happen! There’s lots of places around the world where deserts are getting bigger, and it means people might not be able to grow as much food.

And that is maybe the closest we’ll get to discussing “climate change”, because apparently those words aren’t allowed in North Carolina schools, or something of the sort.

And finally I told them a couple of times that I hoped maybe they would all go to college, study about satellites, and then also help to protect the earth. Does it actually sink in when you tell kids things like this? Or do they forget everything when they start partying in the sixth grade?